On the thought of the poor

I just finished reading James C Scott's Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance, a book looking at the reactions of Malaysian rice farmers in the 1970s to an agricultural revolution taking place there, looking at the the societal changes occurring there. Usually I like to weave quite a few books in parallel, allowing me to spend more time meditating over each. Annoyingly, though, I had to finish this one in a week due to it getting recalled by the library. The book gave lots of stuff to think about, but for now I wanted to excerpt a couple of brief portions.

Here's an excerpt highlighting how the poor may be may not be aware of certain academic terms (which - I'd say - themselves may vary a bit from discipline) yet they're understanding is often adequate:

If the poor dwell upon the local and personal causes of their distress, it is thus not because they are particularly "mystified" or ignorant of the larger context of agrarian capitalism in which they live. They do not, of course, use the abstract, desiccated terminology of social science -proletarianization, differentiation, accumulation, marginalization - to describe their situation. But their own folk descriptions of what is happening: being made into coolies, the rich getting richer and the poor becoming poorer, and being "pushed aside" -are adequate and, at the same time, far richer in emotive meaning than anything academic political-economy could possibly provide. (p. 182)

Then later in the book, looking at behind-the-scenes conversations, the poor might not come up with a lengthy treatise yet may still develop some notions that you might find in places like Marx's magnum opus:

Except for those rare instances when the curtain is momentarily parted, the relatively uncensored subculture of subordinate classes must be sought in those locales, behind the scenes, where it is created-in all those social situations outside the immediate surveillance of the dominant class. Given its shadowy but palpable existence in informal discourse, this subculture is unlikely to be a systematic refutation of the dominant ideology. One does not expect Das Kapital to come from working-class pubs, although one may get something quite close to the labor theory of value! Unless the curtains are parted by open revolt, political freedoms, or a revolution that allows the subculture to take on a public, institutionalized life, it will remain elusive and masked. What is certain, how ever, is that, while domination may be inevitable as a social fact, it is unlikely .. also to be hegemonic as an ideology within that small social sphere where the powerless may speak freely. (p. 329 / 330)

Will note that I don't think that the labour theory of value works in practice, yet I'm not surprised that such an idea would arise in the context of poor rice farmers. I'd see something like a minimum basis income as a better approach to addressing concerns there, but I think that it's important to note that such notions might make the poor there vulnerable to being drawn up into a larger revolution were one to appear on the horizon.

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Warnings and off-putting personalities

I already posted one article on the book Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes. Here's another few excerpts highlighting characteristics of the sort of person who might issue warnings worth thinking about:1

OFF-PUTTING PERSONALITY: Because of the frustration of seeing a threat and wondering why others can’t, because of their personal sense of responsibility for promoting understanding and action on their discovery, and perhaps because of their high level of anxiety in general, Cassandras may at times appear obsessive and even socially abrasive. While they can be personally charming under the right circumstances, many of the individuals gifted with the intelligence and strength of personality required to be a Cassandra may sometimes seem aloof, condescending, socially maladapted, or absent-minded.12 Many Cassandras might score low on what is sometimes called EQ, or the emotional quotient of personal interaction skills. That characteristic may prevent them from communicating in a way that will elicit the appropriate response to get their warnings taken seriously. The work of Lee Ross, a Stanford sociologist, demonstrates that most people are unable to differentiate a message from the messenger.

Orthogonal thought is also highlighted as an another personality characteristic:

ORTHOGONAL THINKER: Cassandras tend to be among the first to think about a certain problem or issue and often are those who acquire the data that then causes alarm. Because of their originality, Cassandras come at the issue from a new perspective and incorporate data and concepts from other fields. This characteristic is called orthogonal thinking. They have the self-confidence to be first but not the arrogance that would interfere with their understanding of the nuances of the data.

And then there's the desire to question things - which also can interact with the off-putting personality elements:

QUESTIONERS: Most Cassandras tend to disbelieve anything that has not been empirically derived and repeatedly tested. They also tend to doubt their own work initially, especially when it predicts disaster. This characteristic is more than just a belief in the scientific method. Rather, they challenge what is generally accepted until it is proven to their satisfaction. They are the philosophical descendants of Pyrrho of Elis, a philosopher in ancient Greece who accompanied Alexander the Great to India. There Pyrrho learned from Indian philosophers who challenged everything. Pyrrho’s teachings influenced another Greek philosopher who taught that all beliefs and assumptions should be challenged, that doubt, skepticism, and disbelief are healthy. This later philosopher was Sextus Empiricus, and his name is forever attached in our minds to the empirical method: doubt until proven by data, by objectively true, observable facts.

Many Cassandras seem to have incorporated Albert Einstein’s belief that “unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.” When the authority figures to whom they report their warning reject their analysis for what the Cassandras believe are non-evidence-based reasons, our warners begin to lose respect for the decision makers. They often are unable to hide that disrespect well.

I think that a lot of people seem to think that for a system to be worth labeling authoritarian, it needs to ban all questioning and all dissent. It seems to me that rather questioning things can be allowed and encouraged as long as those questions target certain groups or avoid those sensitive areas.


  1. Note that this is an incomplete list of the characteristics - the other hightlighted elements are being a proven technical expert, being data driven, having a sense of personal responsibility, and being high anxiety. ↩︎

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